Health Care

As the Climate Emergency Grows, Farmworkers Lack Protection from Deadly Heat

As summer arrives, farmworkers will especially feel the consequences of a warming climate. Amadeo Sumano, a strawberry worker in California, recalled feeling dizzy and experiencing headaches during harvest season, when delivering strawberries onto a motorized, moving table that blows hot exhaust. It’s a double-bind, he explains in Spanish: if he were to position himself farther from the exhaust, it would require lugging the strawberries a greater distance.

Fortunately, Sumano knows his rights, for which he has fought as a member of the labor union United Farm Workers (UFW). He was aware that California’s heat standard requires that outdoor workers receive breaks, potable water, and shade to protect them from the heat. And he brought up the concern with his employer who accommodated it with more rest periods, he said. While this doesn’t resolve structural issues in the agricultural system that can perpetuate unhealthy conditions, it’s significantly better than the protections in most states, as detailed in a new report.

Published by Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS), “Essentially Unprotected” documents farmworkers’ dire lack of critical labor protections from extreme heat and pesticide exposure. A timely examination of the laws in 13 agricultural states and federal regulations, the report reveals dangerous oversights in the laws protecting farmworkers’ health. For instance, only three states—Washington, Minnesota, and California—have any regulations safeguarding workers from escalating temperatures. As the number of unsafe hot days increases, more farmworkers will be endangered without stronger laws and, as the report emphasizes, equally rigorous implementation and enforcement.

The consequences can be fatal: Farmworkers die of heat-related causes at a rate of 20 times that of all other professions. A majority migrant and undocumented workforce, farmworkers are especially vulnerable to extreme heat, not only because of their direct exposure, but also because of a lack of other social and labor protections.

“The food system in the U.S. could be said to be built on the foundations of racial capitalism, operating to produce wealth for a small group, at the expense of public health, the environment, and rural communities,” reads a report titled “Essential and in Crisis,” written by three researchers at John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), and released in concert with the CAFS report.

The CLF report details the longstanding injustices compromising farmworkers’ health, including gender-based violence, crowded housing, a lack of health insurance, food insecurity, a fear of speaking out due to retaliation or deportation, and exemptions from critical labor laws. The pay structure of the agriculture system, where many farmworkers are paid a piece rate, can also incentivize productivity over farmworkers’ health and safety.

Together, the reports provide a stark view into the largely ignored public health risks facing the 2.4 million farmworkers in the U.S., including 524,000 child workers, whose lives and labor have long been devalued. Although COVID-19 has heightened public awareness of the dangerous working conditions faced by farmworkers, the reports call attention to the fact that this hasn’t led to substantive policy change, including from extreme heat. And while advocates have long demanded a federal heat standard, which would provide workers with basic enforceable protections from dangerous temperatures, federal regulators and lawmakers have yet to put one in place.

“It’s important that people understand that this is the foundation of our food system, and it’s horrifying,” said Laurie Beyranevand, the lead author of the report, a professor of law, and director of CAFS. As conversations develop around how to rebuild the U.S. food system in the wake of COVID-19, she sees this an opportune time to create a healthier workplace for farmworkers. “It’s an important time to consider how to rectify it,” she said.

There’s No Enforceable Federal Heat Standard

The dangers of extreme heat exposure are well-documented. “Heat illness is very real and that runs the breadth of mild symptoms to heat stroke and fatality,” said Marc Schenker, a distinguished professor emeritus of public health sciences and medicine at University of California, Davis and the founder of the Migration and Health Research Center.

“Any underlying medical condition would likely be worse, if put through the stress of excess heat,” he said, given that too much heat can affect every system in the body. There is also emerging research studying the connections between heat illness, dehydration, and long-term kidney damage and disease, an epidemic among agricultural workers in Central America.

Despite the known risks, no federal heat standard exists in any industry. As the CAFS report notes, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that employers with employees working in extreme heat are responsible for their safety, but it’s not enforceable. “Without a standard, there’s basically just guidance,” said Beyranevand. “[An employee] could say, ‘My employer didn’t follow the guidance.’ But that doesn’t really mean anything.”

Amplifying a long-time call by farmworker advocates, the report’s authors recommend that OSHA establish a federal heat standard, creating an enforceable set of criteria, like temperature thresholds and shade requirements. This is far from a new idea. In fact, it was first suggested in 1972 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, which was charged with recommending health and safety standards at the time. The recommendation was revised in 1986 and again in 2016, but has yet to be heeded.

As average summer temperatures—and the stakes for workers—continue to rise, advocates say the time is right to try again. They point to several avenues to enact a federal standard. In May, Public Citizen, a consumer and health advocacy group, wrote a letter to the Biden Administration to direct OSHA to “begin the long-overdue process of issuing a workplace heat standard.” The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which was introduced in Congress this March, would similarly direct OSHA to establish a heat standard and is widely supported by farmworker advocacy groups. The bill is named after a farmworker who died of heatstroke in 2004, after working a 10-hour day and collapsing in a California grape field.

Two years after Valdivia’s death, California passed the first heat standard in the nation to protect outdoor workers from heat illnesses. So far, it has had a significant impact, according to the state’s OSHA agency, which told Civil Eats in an email that the number of fatal heat-related illnesses it is notified of has decreased. While there were 10 in 2005, there were only three in 2019 and five in 2020.

“Just having these protections saves lives,” said Teresa Romero, the president of UFW, who is pushing for the act. “We’re not asking for much, other than providing cold water for farmworkers, shade when they have their rest periods, a 10-minute break if the temperature gets high enough, and trainings so farmworkers can recognize the symptoms of heat illness.”

‘The Laws in the Field Are Not the Laws in the Books’

Romero cautions that “the laws in the field are not the laws in the books,” a common saying among farmworker advocates. In other words, the effectiveness of the heat standard also depends on how it is implemented and enforced by Cal/OSHA, how farm workers and employers are educated on the law, and how comfortable farm workers feel exercising their rights, as both reports also underscored.

“Although Cal/OSHA can just show up and make sure this is being done, they don’t have the manpower,” Romero said. The lack of staff and resources is a broader issue at OSHA, which under the Trump administration completed the smallest number of inspections in the agency’s history. On top of that, many farmworkers are not comfortable reporting safety violations directly to OSHA. “They’re afraid to go to any government entity, especially if they are undocumented,” said Romero.

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